I confess – I’ve been following the saga of the American Red Cross in Haiti as avidly as I follow celebrity gossip on online (everyone needs a place to escape to). Six houses built for USD 24 million – yes, I’m cherry-picking the facts to create a snazzy headline – but the whole saga is nonetheless shocking. Yes, there were property title issues and materials issues – things that can dramatically slow down reconstruction, or even change its course. Challenges such as these are always anticipated, but in most cases the information informing of the challenge is transparent, as is any information on a change to a recovery programme, alongside a fairly clear accounting of how money is being spent.
So while the list of reasons explaining why things didn’t ‘go to plan’ can give the impression that the whole saga is much ado about nothing… it really isn’t. In fact, it’s much ado about a massive failure in basic project management. Specially, the aspects of project management that no one particularly enjoys and thus procrastinates on until it’s too late – monitoring, quality assurance and risk management.
I get it. I surely do. I used to be the one who did the quality assurance and would harp on and on and on at the monitoring officers about ensuring that they were collecting data on time (according to their monitoring plans) and then lecture the project managers about ensuring that the quality of the data was meeting expectations…. And boy oh boy – I was hardly a favourite in the office. Except when it came time to write reports, or implement evaluations. THEN my role was appreciated, because there was very little scrambling and our project teams had evidence of our successes and changes effected – and very good reasons and, again, evidence of why something wasn’t working or needed to be changed. They were transparent because they could be. They had good data.
We also had good risk management. It goes without saying that development and recovery programmes have inherent risks – changing political landscapes, risks of mismanagement of funds and corruption, other disasters (or a reemergence of conflict). The list can be quite substantial in some cases – it definitely is for organizations working in Haiti. Which is why risk management is essential. I’m not talking about the nice table of risks (and their likelihood) and ‘response scenarios’ tacked on to the end of any project proposal. I’m talking about actually monitoring those risks, tracking any changes and implementing the response scenarios as needed. For example, when the ARC’s housing programme in Haiti was stonewalled by land title issues, one must ask how – if at all – their risk management plan was put into action. What options did they provide themselves? What timeframe did they give themselves before moving to Plan B (alternative or ‘second best’ activities in the given context)? Did they even have a Plan B identified before they began implementing the project? Better yet, had they identified land title issues as a major risk to the success of their programme?
It boggles my mind when I hear about projects (and organizations) that give so little attention to the necessity of good monitoring and risk management. And I’m not signaling out ARC on this – there are many organizations out there that do not take these aspects of project management seriously. Human and financial resources are rarely – if ever – sufficient. Data points are rarely properly mapped and tend to be ad hoc and ‘convenient’ even if other locations would provide better samples. Data is rarely stored properly or used for analytical purposes. It’s disheartening because so much effort is put into promoting development effectiveness on the one hand, but we fail to be effective where it counts.
So, I’ll be very interested to see how the ARC saga plays out. Who will be the scapegoat at the end of the day? And who will admit that a housing programme in a complex environment such as Haiti had more challenges than it did likelihood for success, but that the absence of good monitoring and risk management practically assured a negative outcome? And then let’s all wait to see how many case studies result…